With a mother named Harrigan, you are Irish, I take it?
- Ken Carpenter, Kraft Music Hall (1945)
Late in the spring of 1831, Bing Crosby's maternal great-grandfather, Dennis Harrigan, a fifty-one-year-old farmer and carpenter who lived in Schull parish, in the southwestern region of County Cork, Ireland, ushered his family aboard a timber ship bound for New Brunswick, Canada. Leading his wife, Catherine, and nine of their ten children onto the creaking deck, Dennis knew what to expect of the grueling voyage. Still, he counted himself lucky, for few members of his congregation were able to leave at all. Of the 65,000 emigrants who set sail in 1831, only ninety or so from tiny Schull could afford passage, not many of them Catholic. A brave, resolute lot, they gazed west-ward with tenacious faith as the ship cleared Ireland's southernmost point, the Mizen Head of southwest Cork's Mizen peninsula, once a haven for smugglers and pirates who sought refuge in its impregnable coves.
The Canadian-built vessels were designed not for carrying passengers but for transporting timber, New Brunswick's primary export. To maximize efficiency, the shipbuilders hastily modified the holds and lowered passenger fares by more than two-thirds, allowing greater numbers of Irish families to emigrate and generating the slogan "timber in, passengers out." Dozens of those ships were lost at sea, and many more were decimated by typhus, dysentery, and other diseases. All were cursed with conditions as barbarous as those of slave ships: insufficient food supplies, inadequate sanitation and gender partition, little if any ventilation, berths half as high as those required by law for slavers. The journey averaged six weeks, and the only music heard was the shrill wail of unceasing lamentations.
The wilderness of Canada's eastern provinces promised to be friendlier to the Harrigans. Dennis's siblings had brought over their families the previous year. Now Dennis removed his own family (all but his married daughter, Ellen Sauntry, who arrived in New Brunswick twenty years later as a widow with seven children), fourteen years before the Great Hunger and before the tidal wave of Irish immigration that flooded America's urban centers. His smaller generation of immigrants would explore and prosper in rural America, migrating from the Northeast to the Midwest to the Northwest, building successful farm communities with the logging skills they learned in the Canadian woods. The names of Mizen peninsula's Catholic congregants who left that season and in harder ones to follow took root all across America: Fitzgerald, Driscoll, Reagan, Harrigan, Sullivan, Donovan, Coughlin, O'Brien, Hickey, Mahoney.
They had abandoned a hellish place.
A hundred years had passed since Jonathan Swift offered his "modest proposal" to abate Ireland's poverty, beggary, and congestion by cannibalizing its "Popish" offspring. "A most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or broiled," he advised, "a delicacy befitting landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have best title to the children." 5 Ireland, cherishing its brood not least as a defense against the privations of old age, tripled its population in the decades after Swift. But congestion was not the foremost source of Ireland's sorrows. The nefarious Penal Code of 1695 barred Irish Catholics—three-quarters of the population—from owning land and businesses, from voting, and from building schools and churches or attending those that existed. Informants, particularly those who turned in priests, were rewarded. The Act of Union, passed in 1801 amid a blizzard of bribes, threats, and hangings, promised to balance the scales between Ireland and England but in fact gave the dominant country a captive market—fortifying a corrupt system of absentee landlords, toppling what was left of Irish commerce, and dissolving the Dublin-based Parliament. While the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 did away with the code, it could not abate the long history of religious enmity.
Ireland became a grim landscape of windowless mud-and-stone cabins, potato-and-milk diets, cholera. The Duke of Wellington observed, "There never was a country in which poverty existed to the extent it exists in Ireland," and the French traveler Gustave de Beaumont found in the Emerald Isle extremes of misery "worse than the Negro in his chains." In the year the Harrigans set out for New Brunswick, the Mizen peninsula was beset by cholera and famine.
Most likely the Harrigans spoke Gaelic, not English, and could not read at all. They were tough, hardworking, close-knit, intensely religious, and musical. A legend passed down into the twentieth century traces the family's genesis to John of Skibbereen (a town some twelve miles east of Schull), who may have been Dennis Harrigan's father and was known as Organ O'Brien for his fine playing of the church instrument. The importance of music and dance in nineteenth-century Ireland can hardly be overstated, for amusements pro-vided as much solace as the church. After a visit in 1825, Sir Walter Scott described the people's "natural condition" as one of "gaiety and happiness."
When the ship finally docked, the Harrigans made their way through the Miramichi section of New Brunswick to the outlying woods of the Williamstown settlement, six miles inland, where they learned to clear land for tillage and built log cabins that furnished little protection against the winter's freezing temperatures. Dennis's nine children ranged in age from one to twenty. He made capable carpenters of his sons.
Most of Williamstown's Catholic settlers were from Mizen peninsula and were powerfully united by culture and custom. The strongest bond was religious, strengthened by the prejudices of the Irish Methodists who preceded them. A second bond was the tradition of aggregate farming, the sharing of tilled soil between families as in the Irish townlands. A third, consequent to the first two, was the observance of secrecy: the "sinister side" of the Irish character that historian Cecil Woodham-Smith has traced to the days of the Penal Code. A fourth was the heritage of strong, venerated women (Ireland was that rare nation where husbands paid dowries for wives, instead of the reverse) who secured their households. A fifth bond was that of large families—small communes within the larger ones.
Music—the public converse of the secret self—was the sixth bond, taking the form of Irish melodies and rhythms that became increasingly popular and influential in the last half of the nineteenth century, complementing styles developed at the same time by African Americans. It was the custom in Ireland and Africa, but not in Europe, to dance to vocal music; to favor the pentatonic scale, call-and-response phrases, and cyclical song structures; to employ expressive vocal mannerisms, including dramatic shifts in register, nasality, and most especially the upper mordent.
The mordent—a fast wavering from one note to another and back, a fleeting undulation that suggests a mournful cry—was a vestige of the Byzantine influence that dominated European music in the Middle Ages. That influence vanished from most of Europe but endured in the plaintive folk music of Scotland and Ireland, owing to their economic and geographical isolation from the modernizing impact of the Reformation and Renaissance. A 1950s edition of Chambers's Encyclopaedia defines the mordent as a "certain oscillation or catch in the voice as it comes to rest momentarily upon a sustained sound" and goes on to qualify it as a basic attribute of "crooning." Among young Celtic singers of the twenty-first century, the mordent-heavy approach is known as sean nós, or old style, but it was new to Americans in the 1920s, when Dennis Harrigan's great-grandson pinned the mordent to popular music like a red rose.
Sealing the family's bargain with the New World, Catherine Harrigan, in her early forties, gave birth on September 6, 1832, to her eleventh child, the only one born in North America, Dennis Jr. It would have greatly surprised Bing Crosby to learn that his maternal grandfather was Canadian; he assumed he was Irish born, and wrote as much in his memoir and on his mother's death certificate.(When Bing attempted to trace the family line during a visit to Ireland, he was thwarted by his certainty in the matter.) If Dennis Sr. embodied the trials of transatlantic resettlement, his son—born in New Brunswick and baptized at St. Patrick's in Miramichi—would personify the westward journey into and across the United States.
By 1835 his family, like so many of Williamstown's interconnected tribes, was earning much of its livelihood from logging and timber. The desirable riverfront land had been taken by previous settlers, but the rigors of clearing tracts acclimated the newcomers and taught them to survive the wilderness. Protestants and Catholics often worked together, united by the hostile environment. Dennis Harrigan's appointment as overseer of highways in 1839 affirmed the increasingly significant Catholic presence. But the old enmities persisted. Catholics were characterized as criminal or rowdy and were severely punished; one man was hanged for stealing twenty-five pennies and a loaf of bread. Catholic children had to travel long distances to escape the schooling of Methodist crusaders. The first Catholic teacher, James Evers, hired in 1846, was falsely accused of sexually molesting a Methodist student and was fired. A petition attesting to his "good moral character" was signed by thirteen parents of Williamstown, including Dennis Harrigan. Evers spent two years futilely defending himself, then cleared out in 1849, at which time the Court of General Sessions at Newcastle concluded that he was a man of "moral and sober habits" and "taught to our satisfaction."
Evers's calamity prefigured that of Williamstown. As Great Britain reduced tariffs on timber from the Baltic countries, New Brunswick's timber industry declined. Town merchants foreclosed on their debts. Opportunities in the western United States lured away the settlers' children. The Williamstown settlement would be little remembered today but for the inordinate number of eminent Americans whose New World roots are in those woods. Dennis Harrigan's descendants alone include, among his grandsons, William and John Harrigan, who built the Scotch Lumber Company in Fulton, Alabama; Emmett Harrigan, head of a major law firm in St. Paul and an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate; and Ellen Sauntry's brazen Miramichi-raised son, William Sauntry Jr., the millionaire lumber baron of Stillwater, Minnesota, known as "the King of the St. Croix," whose garish mansion, the Alhambra, stands today as a Stillwater tourist attraction. Dennis's great-grandsons include Lyman Sutton, president of Stillwater's Cosmopolitan State Bank; Gordon Neff, whose chain stores introduced supermarkets to Los Angeles; Colonel Bill Harrigan, who helped rescue the First World War's "Lost Battalion" in the Argonne Forest; bandleader Bob Crosby; and Bing.
Dennis and Catherine passed away within a few years of each other and are presumably buried in a churchyard's unmarked graves in Red Bank, on the Miramichi River. They were almost certainly gone by 1866, the year several of their children, now in their thirties and forties, left for Maine, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Dennis Jr., however, remained another fifteen years. After attending school in Williamstown and Red Bank, he tried his hand at various jobs. While working as a logger in Newcastle and later as a brewer, he boarded in the home of a friend, Michael Ahearn. In 1867, the year the Dominion of Canada was chartered, he married Ahearn's sister, Katie. Within weeks the couple headed south through Maine and across to Stillwater, Minnesota.
Dennis Jr., one of the most industrious and devout of his father's sons (two or three brothers were thought to be ne'er-do-wells and were probably alcoholic), eventually earned a reputation as a reliable, proficient contractor and builder, specializing in church architecture. Stillwater provided a congenial setting for him to hone his skills; many Miramichi families, including three of his siblings, had been drawn to the prosperous logging and rafting enterprises on the St. Croix River. He also continued with his wife, Katie, the custom of large families. Married in their thirties, the two produced five boys and two girls between 1867 and 1879. They remained in Stillwater until the last was born.
According to the Crosby genealogy written by Larry Crosby (Bing's oldest brother), it was Katie who advanced the family's musical calling. In his account, she "not only baked a wonderful pie, but sang like a bird, and it was common gossip when she was out rowing on the lake, that either Katie Harrigan or an angel is out there singing." Her boys were raised to be practical. In Larry's account, Dennis "wisely brought up four of his sons to be respectively [a] lather, plumber, plasterer and electrician. They could build a house or win a fight, without any outside help." Singing was a pastime, hardly a profession. Two grandchildren of Ellen Sauntry, first cousins to Dennis Jr., "won renown on the stage," to the chagrin of their parents, who considered acting "unmoral."
Katie managed to pass on her love of singing to at least one child, her fourth-born and first daughter, Catherine Helen Harrigan, who was delivered on February 7, 1873, in a boarding room above an old creamery. This Catherine also inherited her father's pious diligence. When her own children—Bing among them—were middle-aged, they reminisced about her "sweet, clear voice" and took care not to smoke, drink, or swear in her presence. A childhood photograph of Catherine reveals a comely round-faced girl who looks nothing like the severe image she presented in later years. In her large, pale eyes, one can see her mother's penetrating stare and her father's hooded lids, both of which she passed on to her most famous son.
A year or two after Catherine was born, the Harrigans moved into a large boardinghouse on Main Street. Many of its thirty or so tenants were from New Brunswick. Dennis probably owned part of the house, but in 1879, when the youngest of his children, George, was born, he was able to secure a home of his own on Second Street, where he took in boarders to bolster his income. In 1881, finding increasingly limited opportunities in Stillwater, he moved the family to St. Paul. Before the year was out, he relocated again, to Knife Falls (now Cloquet), near Duluth, where his fortunes improved. He built that town's first Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, as well as a school, and was appointed a church trustee. In 1885, with his reputation as a builder secure, Dennis took his family back to St. Paul for three years. There Catherine, now twelve, and her brother Edward spent their afternoons at the ice palace, he making and she demonstrating ice skates. They were obliged to earn their keep beyond essentials, a Harrigan practice that Catherine, who could skate her name on ice, instilled in her own children.
The West had lured many Miramichi families, including a few of Dennis's uncles and aunts, by the time he succumbed. Most had relocated to Washington and Wisconsin, drawn by the booming economies set in motion by land speculators and lumber barons. Dennis chose Tacoma, a seaport on Puget Sound, about twenty-five miles south of Seattle, where the lumber industry increased the population tenfold in the 1880s. A boom was predicted when the Northern Pacific Railroad named Tacoma its terminus, and in 1884 the city was incorporated from two smaller boroughs of the same name. Signs of progress—electric lights, warehouses, shipways, a hospital—reflected the influx of thousands of blue-collar families drawn by the promise of cheap lumber and land. No city in the nation boasted a higher percentage of families who owned their own homes. Not even the scourge of racial violence halted growth; in fact, it may have helped. Tacoma created international headlines when a mob led by city officials rounded up 200 Chinese residents at gunpoint and forced them to board southbound trains. The United States was forced to pay China an indemnity, but the specter of competitive, minimally paid labor had been subdued.
In 1888 the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its pass through the Cascade Mountains and sold 90,000 acres of timberland to the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumbering Company, which built a sawmill on the tidal flats of Commencement Bay. That year Dennis and his eldest son, William, decided to make their move. Boarding in a Tacoma rooming house, they worked as carpenters until they earned enough to buy a place that could accommodate Katie and the children, who arrived a year later. Dennis was fifty-seven, old for carpentry, but he soon established himself as a contractor and built several notable structures, including Seattle's Hull Building and Tacoma's Aquinas Academy annex, Scandinavian Church, and Dominican Sisters convent.
All but the two youngest children helped keep the Harrigans solvent. William, twenty-three in 1890, worked alongside his father as a lather until he hired on as a streetcar conductor for the Tacoma Rail and Motor Company; Ambrose, twenty-one, was foreman for an electrical-supplies concern; Edward, twenty, worked as a plumber; Catherine, who at seventeen was called Kate, fashioned and sold hats for the G. W. H. Taylor millinery company; her fifteen-year-old sister, Annie, worked at home as a dressmaker; at thirteen and eleven, respectively, Frank and George helped with the chores.
A few years later Kate took a job clerking at Sanford & Stone's popular mercantile store on Tacoma Avenue and was designing hats for a branch of the company that staged amateur theatricals. While appearing in one of those productions, she attracted the attention of an unlikely suitor: a mandolin-playing auditor for the Northern Pacific, Harry Lowe Crosby...